By Simit Shah
November 17, 2003
ATLANTA On the day Paul Hewitt was introduced as Georgia Tech's basketball coach, most of the Yellow Jacket faithful were left asking, Who? Three seasons later, those fans are asking, When?
Since his arrival in the spring of 2000, the relatively unknown coach from Siena has made major strides in righting the direction of the program, which struggled mightily during Bobby Cremins' final years. The Jackets failed to earn NCAA Tournament bids in six of the last seven seasons under Cremins, after a streak of nine consecutive appearances.
Regaining that status of perennial NCAA invitee is Hewitt's mission, but the 40-year-old coach is still searching for the right formula.
While most prognosticators have picked the team to finish in the bottom four of the ACC, the experience and depth on this year's roster could prove the naysayers wrong. It's easy to look at the losses of big men Chris Bosh and Ed Nelson, both ACC rookie of the year award winners, and predict that the Jackets will be undermanned. However, Hewitt sees a roster capable of executing his full-court, up-tempo system.
The guys on this team understand what we're trying to accomplish, Hewitt said. Most of them have been in the program two or three years, so we don't have the steep learning curve that's been there in the past.
The big questions focus on the frontcourt. Bosh, who entered the NBA draft after one season, and Nelson, a surprise transfer to Connecticut, accounted for the bulk of the team's production in the paint, with almost 24 points and 17 rebounds a night. Replicating those statistics, not to mention ability, is the team's biggest challenge.
They were two very good basketball players, and you're not going to replace them overnight, Hewitt said. We've got some guys on this team who have the ability to step up and fill those roles, but it's going to be a group effort.
That group includes Theodis Tarver, Luke Schenscher and Robert Brooks. The trio averaged just seven points and six rebounds a game, primarily in spot duty, last season.
The coaching staff has high hopes for Tarver, a 6-9 sophomore who cracked the starting lineup late last year during the team's NIT run, but a dislocated kneecap in the first week of practice has him sidelined indefinitely.
His absence shifts the burden on Schenscher, an Australian seven-footer who is still adjusting to the level of play in this country. He tipped the scales at 215 pounds as a freshman two years ago, but now he's up to 255 and better equipped to anchor the middle. He owns an array of post moves, but a lack of aggressiveness has limited his effectiveness.
Luke's a better player, Hewitt said, but he's still got those habits he's got to break.
The Jackets received a big boost with the return of Clarence Moore, a versatile small forward who quit the team prior to last season. The senior from Louisiana was an emerging star in the ACC two years ago.
If he can play the way I think he's capable, he's a guy who's going to get points, rebounds, assists and blocked shots, said Hewitt, who said Moore would have been one of the top returning players in the league had he suited up last season.
I think it will take a few games to get back in the rhythm, but I think I can do the same things, said Moore, who averaged nine points and five rebounds in 2001-02. I'm still the same player. I've been in the gym a lot getting ready for this season.
Moore will split time with junior Anthony McHenry, who received the starting nod in Tech's two exhibition games. Hewitt often has praised McHenry's versatility and potential, even comparing him to the NBA's Penny Hardaway. After a failed experiment as a guard, the 6-7 swingman found a home at forward last season. His ability to defend bigger players with guard-like quickness helped him register 23 steals and 13 blocked shots.
While there is a degree of uncertainty up front, Tech's backcourt is one of the ACC's best and deepest, starting with the tandem of point guard Jarrett Jack and shooting guard B.J. Elder. Jack showed signs of maturing as a point guard during the latter part of his freshman campaign, while Elder established himself as one of the league's most explosive scorers.
Marvin Lewis, who has started nearly every game the past three seasons, provides the Jackets with another perimeter option. The 6-4 senior struggled with his shooting at times last year, but his leadership on the floor never wavered.
Reserve wing players include high-flying Isma'il Muhammad and Swedish import Jim Nystrom. Muhammad's offensive decision-making seems much improved, as he scored 36 points in Tech's two exhibition games.
Newcomer Will Bynum, a transfer from Arizona, assumes the role of backup point guard, providing Jack some much-needed relief. The lack of a secondary ball-handler hurt the Jackets the last two seasons, and Bynum's arrival alleviates the burden on Elder and Lewis when Jack rests.
In many of the close losses last year, if (Jack) had had a little help, maybe things could have swung in our favor, Hewitt said. It will mean an awful lot to Jarrett just to have a chance to catch his breath every once in a while in games. He and Will have become very competitive in pickup games, as well as in practice last year.
It's a big help to me, Elder said. Coach has really talked a lot about me asserting myself as a scorer, and not having to play point will help me focus on that.
Hewitt needs his proven players Elder, Lewis and Moore to score on a consistent basis, both inside and outside.
The difference between just surviving and thriving in the ACC rests on the performance of role players such as McHenry, Muhammad and Schenscher. All three have shown flashes of brilliance as recently as this preseason, but they are all big ifs at this point. If McHenry can become an all-around contributor, especially on the boards If Muhammad can drive to the basket and convert free throw opportunities If Schenscher can compete with the ACC's big men on both ends of the floor
While there are doubts about what will transpire over the next four months, there are few when it comes to Hewitt's coaching ability. His trademark has been the amount of improvement his teams make during the course of a season. With an experienced roster, Tech has an opportunity to hit stride by January and carry momentum into March.
We know the potential we have on this team, Lewis said. We have to fulfill that potential. You get tired of saying, We should do this, or we should do that.' Now we have to prove ourselves.
As well as prove that the when is now.